I had unconsciously been skipping over this book with a cry of “Oh, I should read the Alexei Sayle books together,” etc., because I was nervous about reading it. Sacks has been one of my heroes since my 20s, when I first read “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat”, and I’ve read his books as they’ve been published. I was devastated when he died, even though he’d obviously reached a good old age, and I didn’t want to face reading this for a while, even though I knew that, as an autobiography, it wouldn’t have the terribly sad chapter that a biography would have had. I also became aware that there was a fair bit of the excesses of youth in there, and was a bit worried about how I’d feel about that (hopefully it goes without saying that it wasn’t his expression of his sexuality that I was worried about, but anyone’s expression of whatever sexuality in somewhat graphic detail when I’ve admired them for their mind for so long). Anyway, it’s been read, and I coped.

Oliver Sacks – “On the Move”

(25 December 2016, from Virago Secret Santa giver, Belva)

Finally facing reading this; seeing your heroes’ feet of clay is always a bit unsettling and I did indeed like the sex and bikes and drugs and lifting bits less than the parts where he had started meeting his famous patients and writing his wonderful books. And, we find, there are at least three lost books, mislaid during moves and in luggage – shocking!

The way in which Sacks was always going to be different from other scientists and physicians comes out early in his career: in his first term at Oxford, he decided, “I wanted to write my own ‘Essays in Biography’, though with a clinical twist”. Later in the book, where it loses its sequence a bit to describe themes in his life, he describes the satisfying intellectual relationships he has with other mavericks of neuroscience and medicine, and the pleasure they all get from working outside the usual but crossing paths and ideas with each other. I have to say here that I think this rejigging of the order might have been done at some later stage, as the organisational impetus of the book gets a bit lost and he re-mentions things we already know. This could also be an outcome of the chaos and lack of organised thought he claims to be characterised by.

Following on from this thought, Sacks is honest about his defects: apparently he lived on cereal and sardines, the latter eaten straight from the tin, until learning to cook in his 70s; he was terrible at learning languages, so wasn’t able to learn American Sign Language when he was interested in the world of the Deaf; and he claims in the book to be chaotic and slapdash in his work, evidenced by his failure to become a decent research scientist early in his career.

I actually found more endearing – as surely we always do when reading biography and memoir – by those things that chimed directly with me. His faceblindness is often mentioned as a matter of fact facet of life; he and his last, beloved partner Billy apparently had a passion for Iceland, although this was only mentioned in the book; and I liked the photo of him standing in front of a poster at a conference, as I’m still struck by my realisation of the poster as an important academic tool when I myself got mixed up with the neuroscientists (humanities people like me don’t do the poster thing).

I loved the notes of his interactions with Robin Williams, such an amazing mimic that they freaked each other out, acting exactly the same, and Robert de Niro, who spent hours perfecting his portrayal of a patient, when working on the film of “Awakenings”. And in the end, the final chapter, a return to chronology, was not as sad as I’d expected; yes, there was the inevitable decline, but also his late-blooming love and move to a hitherto unexperienced domesticity and his continued love of writing.

I’m currently reading “Good as You” by Paul Flynn, which charts the remarkable U-turn from terror and fear at HIV to the putting into law of gay marriage through a cultural and media studies lens and is as warm as it’s interesting. I’m not sure what’s up next, but possibly a light novel or a pony book … What are you all reading? Are you hatching any plots for book challenges for next year or finishing off this year’s?